Jeanette Winterson recently made an impassioned plea for libraries, along with cultural spaces in general, to be saved from the wave of local authority and public spending cuts currently crashing across the country. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/23/protect-our-libraries-jeanette-winterson?INTCMP=SRCH for a shortened version of her address.
In some places the local authorities, who have a statutory responsibility to provide a library service, are being straightforwardly honest and simply closing libraries down because they have decided they can no longer afford them. This is the line being proposed by Newcastle City Council. You know where you are with this and can respond in an equally straightforward manner.
In my home town of York, the Council are being fundamentally dishonest in their approach. On the one hand they have instituted an immediate 10% cut in funding for their libraries at the same time as applying for money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a proper city archive store and revamp their Local Studies section in the main Library building. They claim that, this year, there will be no compulsory redundancies, no reduction in book purchasing and no closures of branch libraries. However, they have also intimated that there will be further cuts to funding in future years, so there are no guarantees as to future closures and job losses. A promise to ring-fence funding for Archive staff is unlikely to be maintained for long after the public funding has been spent.
That is not all. They are also ‘consulting’ on whether or not to outsource the library service to a Community Benefit Society as part of their commitment to the ‘Cooperative Council’ ideal. They do not provide any information as to how this will be organised and managed, nor how the setting up will be financed. While this may seem like a positive move to involve the community it is actually a tactical smokescreen. The Council hopes that, by focussing concern on the issue of how libraries are managed, it will draw attention away from the salami-slicing of funding cuts, year on year. Sooner or later, libraries will close, professional staff will lose their jobs, and fees and charges will be introduced to make up the shortfall. Councillors, of whatever political colour, will, in future, be able to wash their hands of responsibility.
Like Jeanette Winterson, I remember a childhood in which the library was the biggest excitement. It began with a Mobile Library visiting one of Darlington’s satellite villages every Friday. At the age of six I walked a mile and a half from the nearby council estate, to pick up my first library book. I remember it was Jack London’s White Fang, borrowed on my older brother’s ticket because I was too young to have my own. I later ‘graduated’ to the main town library, where there was a bigger choice, and took special pleasure when I was old enough to leave behind the Children’s Library and access the books in the main section. These were rites of passage out into the wider world of learning, vividly etched in my memory.
Sadly, if you follow the comments in the Guardian on the link above, you will find that support for libraries is by no means universal. Equally, my attempts to raise the issue of what is happening to York’s libraries in the local press have drawn almost no response at all, either way. Are we descending into a cultural morass of complacent, consumerist passivity dominated by the latest e-gadget?